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a little bit goes a long way

I’m in the middle of outlining a romance novel that has a lot of potential endings — and several of those possible ending are polyamorous in nature. It’s making me realize one of the weird ways fiction doesn’t necessarily mirror reality.

Romance fiction tends to be, largely, monosexual — one person meets one person, they fall in love, happily ever after (HEA). On some rare occasions, though — and this appears in both original romance novels and in romantic fanfiction — you get a polyamorous solution to everyone’s will-they-won’t-they.

When an author chooses the polyamorous option, they’re trying to demonstrate how it works for an audience that may not necessarily have any experience of it in real life. And in fiction, it looks great. There’s support, there’s a lot of love, there’s frequently really inventive sex scenes. Two things I’ve noticed, though:

  • The kind of poly that tends to show up as the HEA is polyfidelity, or maybe “kitchen-table poly“. In polyfidelity, everyone’s in a relationship with everyone else, like a closed triangle (or whatever shape the polycule is). In kitchen-table poly, everyone might not be in a relationship with everyone else, but they’re all involved in one another’s lives to the degree that they could sit around the kitchen table in their pajamas.
  • You don’t see a lot of parallel or solo poly — at least, not being practiced by the main character. In parallel poly, multiple relationships are being maintained separately; in solo, the poly person maintains multiple relationships but is “settling down” with no one person in particular.

I don’t think kitchen-table or polyfidelity or any of those big group styles of poly are the default of poly — and I don’t think they’re necessarily better than parallel or solo poly, just because we see it in fiction more often. Rather, I think that it’s difficult to write parallel or solo poly sympathetically, in the manner that we’re used to writing about mono relationships.

Writing (for me) is all about having a toolbox of ideas and hacks and methods to convey particular ideas, tools that allow me to translate the messy story in my head to something that looks relatively similar in a complete stranger’s head. If I try to convey one character’s love and desire for multiple other characters, and those characters are all separate or otherwise don’t interact… that sort of writing exists, but generally it’s used to denote a cheater. Even if the author explicitly states that that’s not the case, the author has to contend with their reading audience’s years’ worth of experience decoding and interpreting monosexual fiction — and their own experience writing it. It’s just… easier to write polyamory as if it’s just very complex monogamy.

The truth is, though, that it’s a different bird. And that can land some readers in trouble, particularly those who use fiction to game-test ideas in a sandbox before playing them in the real world. If they’re presented with a type of relationship that looks like it solves their own problems, and then don’t do any research outside of fiction… well, let us consider the example of 50 Shades of Grey and BDSM, and move on from there.

So in working on the ending to my romance, I’m stuck trying to come up with the HEA while at the same time maintaining what I’d like to think is reality for a large subset of the polyamorous community (and shouldn’t they get to see themselves in fiction too?). It’s frustrating work — but, I suppose, that’s why authors do it. Maybe I’ll be the one to crack the code.